Gauging the Effect of a Little Practice

People will tell you that practice makes perfect. This is untrue, at least as far as it has to do with humans. Humans will forever be imperfect, and a better and more accurate saying would be “practice makes better”. If you’re trying to do something, and you practice it, you’ll probably do better than you would have had you not practiced it. This is the whole idea behind practice, so I’m glad we finally have this cleared up.

Major-league baseball players have practiced baseball. An awful lot! For years and years and years, on a regular basis, and you could even make the argument that games are just practice for future games. Everything is practice for the next such opportunity. What we can figure is that these players are better for having practiced, and without so much practice, they might and presumably would be worse. We can’t really measure the effect of practice, though, since they’re all practicing all the time. We don’t have a practice-less control group.

This is one area where pitchers come in handy. Whether you agree or disagree that pitchers ought to bat in today’s game, pitchers are fascinating to study as a group, and we wouldn’t have that information if they were all replaced by designated hitters. Pitchers can give us a glimpse into how people not selected for their offense might perform offensively in the major leagues. Pitchers, after all, bat thousands of times, and this gives us some pretty good samples. And pitchers can also tell us a little something about the effect of regular practice. Regular batting practice, that is, because we have an American League and a National League, and the leagues have different rules.

Your quick summary: pitchers in the National League will practice batting regularly. This is because pitchers in the National League bat. Pitchers in the American League will practice batting around interleague play, because that’ll bring their only opportunities. No sense in practicing it with a bunch of other AL games coming up. Incidentally, this just got me wondering about how things might change down the road, now that interleague play is a little more scattered and a little more frequent. Will AL pitchers start to catch up to NL pitchers at the plate? Something to monitor! But not what we’re monitoring now.

By examining the differences between AL pitchers hitting and NL pitchers hitting, we can learn something about the effect of all that practice. It isn’t perfect, of course. Many AL pitchers have played previously in the NL, so they have previous big-league hitting or practicing experience. And pitchers have all hit in the past, and they’ve probably been good at it. NL teams might select for better-hitting pitchers, since it’s a consideration to them and not to teams in the AL. I’m kind of skeptical that this matters in reality, but it might and I don’t know for sure that it doesn’t.

So that’s enough words — let’s look at some numbers. I gathered data for 2008-2012, dating back to the beginning of the reliable PITCHf/x Era. I’ve got three tables, covering, generally, opposing pitcher approach, batting results, and batting discipline. Table one:

League PA FA% F-Strike% Zone% Pace
AL 1593 73% 73% 58% 18.3
NL 28342 71% 69% 56% 18.8

AL pitchers have seen a few more fastballs, which is something you’d probably expect. They’ve also seen more first-pitch strikes, and more pitches in the zone, and opposing pitchers have worked a little more quickly. All of this makes perfect intuitive sense. NL pitchers know that NL pitchers practice batting pretty regularly. They also know that AL pitchers do not, so they’re more willing to come right after them. Why be intimidated by an AL pitcher at the plate? Provided that AL pitcher isn’t Felix Hernandez, and provided you aren’t Johan Santana. The differences here, though, are not particularly dramatic. As a general rule of thumb, pitchers don’t respect pitchers batting. They just respect AL pitchers batting a tiny bit less, which is warranted.

Moving on:

League HBP% SH% BB% K% wRC+ GB%
AL 0% 11% 3% 41% -23 65%
NL 0% 11% 4% 34% -11 60%

No AL pitcher has been hit by a pitch since 2007. Over the past five years, 69 NL pitchers have been hit by pitches. There’s no difference in the sacrifice bunting rate, so bunting practice might not make a whole lot of difference. This would require a deeper and more specific investigation. You can see that AL pitchers have struck out far more often. They’ve produced inferior results. They’ve put the ball more often on the ground. The last one is of some interest; the others are pretty predictable. AL pitchers have grounder-heavy swings. This is probably because they have bad swings. It might be because, as a group, they try to just slap the ball on the ground in order to make some sort of contact. Meanwhile, it’s not like NL pitchers go up there and line the ball all over the yard.

And finally:

League O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
AL 34% 53% 45% 51% 75% 67%
NL 34% 55% 46% 53% 80% 71%

Here we can see why AL pitchers strike out more often. They make contact less often, at both balls and strikes. They don’t actually swing at balls more often, which is interesting, but their judgment is poor, in terms of swings at strikes vs. swings at balls. Practice doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on discipline, as we can observe here; it does seem to allow the pitchers to more often make contact with the baseball. The contact rates are all poor, but they’re also all different.

Which might, again, be because NL teams might select in part for hitting ability. But presuming they don’t really do that, and presuming the AL and NL pitcher sample pools are of roughly equivalent offensive talent levels, then we can see above how practice has been helping, or how a lack of practice has been hurting. NL pitchers have out-hit AL pitchers. A big part of this is because they have struck out less often. They’re still very bad, and they still strike out too much, and what happens with pitchers can’t really be applied to position players for whom hitting is genuinely important, but as far as the effect of practice is concerned, this is one approximation of one thing. There’s a difference that we might be able to chalk up to taking more regular BP and just thinking about batting more than a handful of times a season.

It will be interesting to see if things change as interleague play changes. That is, if the pitcher-batting phenomenon isn’t eliminated. That’s for another time in the future, and I’ll just have to wait like all the rest of you.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

17 Responses to “Gauging the Effect of a Little Practice”

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  1. Cidron says:

    Always learned it as “Practice makes habits”. Practice it wrong, you learn bad habits. Practice it good, you learn it good. Practice will build muscle memory, which by itself is a good thing. But, if you build “wrong/bad memory” it will interfere with the rest of the preparation.

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  2. Ixcila says:

    Would there be a way to test the “teams do not select for batting talent in their pitchers” null hypothesis? One could graph AAV for NL pitcher contracts against whatever stat best predicts AAV (last year’s WAR? next year’s ZIPS WAR projection? Some multi-component variable?), then plot the residuals from that graph against batting runs.

    I might try that, actually. Does anyone know what stat I’m looking for? What correlates best with AAV on a contract?

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  3. Johan Santa says:

    Who is Johan Santa?

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  4. thistakesgumption says:

    “No AL pitcher has been hit by a pitch since 2007. Over the past five years, 69 NL pitchers have been hit by pitches.”

    Both HBP% show 0%

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    • Ixcila says:

      69/28342 = 0.00243, or 0.2 %, and the table appears to round to the nearest whole percent, so 0%.

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    • Bad Bill says:

      Presumably round-off error. During 2012, approximately one pitcher plate appearance in 400 led to an HBP in the NL. The rate was slightly lower in 2011, higher in 2010, due in no small part to an exceptionally large number of Brewers pitchers getting nailed. (Wonder what that was all about?) An overall rate of 0.25% of pitcher PAs leading to HBPs would show up as 0% in a table not extending past the decimal point in precision. For comparison purposes, note that again in round numbers, one PA by a non-pitcher in about 100 to 120 (considerable variation year-to-year and league-to-league) led to an HBP.

      Incidentally, if we go back to, say, 1964, when pitchers batted in both leagues and there were some notoriously good-hitting pitchers (Drysdale, Gibson, Gary Peters, etc.), pitcher HBPs appear to have been much more common, even though the overall rate in baseball was rather lower than it is today. Peters himself, possessor of a career .601 OPS, was plunked 7 times in 875 career plate appearances. They obviously weren’t cutting HIM any slack as a pitcher. Drysdale (lifetime .523 OPS), despite his own reputation as a headhunter, was hit 5 times in 1309 PAs. (Of course, he was also mean as a snake and a great big guy. The pitcher who hit him would have been in danger of life and limb.) Gibson was also considered to throw at hitters in addition to being a good hitter (career .545 OPS), and was hit 8 times in 1489 PAs. Specifically in 1964, the overall rate for pitcher HBPs appears to have been about twice what it is now, or a bit less, although I have not calculated it carefully. (Weird trivium: Johnny Podres had exactly one plate appearance that year. It ended in a hit by pitch.) This despite an overall HBP rate that was definitely lower than today’s.

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      • Breadbaker says:

        Wasn’t that from the old “you hit my guy I’ll hit you” era, as opposed to the “you hit my guy, I’ll hit your no. 3 hitter” era?

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      • Bip says:

        On the one hand youd think the headhunter would draw more retaliation throws. On the other, best not plunk the guy whos going to be throwing 90 mph roughly at you in an inning or two.

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      • Bad Bill says:

        The “you hit my guy, I’ll hit you” thing may be either exaggerated or misrepresented. Peters was targeted considerably more often than he hit people himself (roughly one every 140 PAs), and it was probably just because he was a very good hitting pitcher. Drysdale, by contrast, was not hit any more often than the average pitcher of his time, even though he was notorious for throwing at hitters (one HBP per about 90 PAs, which was exceptionally bloody for the 1960s, although not for today). The most likely explanation, simply put, was that other pitchers were scared that if they hit him, he’d come out to the mound and pound them into the ground like a tent stake. He was huge for the time (my memory says 6’6″, although he’s listed at 6’5″ in B-R) and mean as a snake, so the concern would not have been unfounded.

        The anthropology of the hit-by-pitch is probably worth an article in itself. It is clear, anyway, that times were different then than they are now. Note that if we continue pushing back into the past to 1930, HBPs as a whole were even less frequent (about one per 240 PAs) than in 1964, and pitchers were almost immune to being hit — with the curious exception of Dolf Luque, who was hit 3 times that year in 85 PAs (while not hitting anyone at all himself). His whole career was like that; he was hit 11 times in 1190 career PAs, in other words, nearly twice as often as a typical hitter, even though the overall rates were slightly higher during his peak (1920s) than in 1930. Wonder why that was? Could it have been out-and-out racism? Luque was Cuban by birth, after all.

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  5. Jaker says:

    It’s hard to separate the effect of practice versus in-game experience.

    Simply looking at the number of PAs, NL pitchers get roughly 18 times the amount of PAs per season.

    That in-game experience alone might be enough to give them the edge at the plate regardless of the practice.

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  6. Felix Hernandez says:

    I hit a grand salami in interleague play, suckers! I am the KING!

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  7. Allen Iverson says:


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